Thursday, October 17, 2013

INFERNO (1980)

SYNOPSIS: A poetess named Rose learns of the Three Mothers through a book she purchases from a creepy antique dealer.  She writes a letter to her brother Mark, who is residing in Rome, home of Mater Lachrymarum.  Said Mother has a few cameos and presumably prevents Mark from reading the letter, but he journeys to New York, anyway, in search of his sister and sets up a showdown with the Mother of Shadows.  

If you don't already have a copy of the film and have a player that can handle PAL, I'd recommend the R2 Arrow Video release.  It's a great transfer and is packed with bonuses, like the Daria Nicolodi intro.


WHAT WORKED:

It will be easiest to work chronologically again.  You'd expect a sequel to SUSPIRIA to establish connections, both thematically and in terms of plotting.  Happily, a lot of SUSPIRIA's strengths get ported over.  We open with narration from a book by Varelli, the architect who designed the houses for the Three Mothers.  At one point, he says, "The Three Mothers were really three evil stepmothers!", which would be totes ridiculous in a normal horror film, but it fits right into the dark fairy-tale world of the Three Motherverse.  And, inevitably, we get suffused with Argento's acclaimed lighting, although INFERNO is definitely much more conventionally staged and shot in many places.


INFERNO is technically a sequel to SUSPIRIA, but in practice it feels a lot like a sequel to Argento's entire body of work.  Some themes and even stretches of dialogue from established Argento films get incorporated into this one (one memorable interaction is slightly tweaked from its DEEP RED incarnation).  Even old actors and possibly their characters make returns in this!  


Admittedly pretty cool (and how did he get from Freiburg to Rome), but...


Whoa, dude!  Additionally, the Three Mothers continue to be proud of their famous residents and affix boasting signs to their buildings.


Gurdjieff, who according to Wikipedia, "taught that most humans live their lives in a state of hypnotic 'waking sleep', but that it is possible to transcend to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential."  Super-interesting!  This film is a Byzantine maze of stuff to unravel.

INFERNO's less apt to display camera hysterics (no crane shots to match the communal sleeping scene in SUSPIRIA) and definitely opts for more muted set design in many cases, but Argento's still Argento and this is framed and arranged with an expert's eye.  Argento devotes as much care to staging his conversation scenes as most directors expend on their whole movies.

See?


The more epic scale is problematic in places (discuss later!), but it also leads to some fantastic "teaser" scenes.  This ain't MOTHER OF TEARS, but the scenes with said Mother are just great.  Casting Ania Pieroni from TENEBRAE in this role was masterful judgment.  She has the perfect look for the most beautiful and saddest Mother of all.

I loved the consistency of imagery and visual vocabulary in this.  For a film called INFERNO, this movie loves loves loves water scenes.  We get an exceedingly memorable one at the beginning, samples of SUSPIRIA's storms, and layer upon layer of violence in the wet parts of a New York park.  Water is pretty clearly linked to death and decay in many of these scenes...


...but its elemental opposite, fire, doesn't seem to appear in comforting ways, either.  So shut up, Captain Planet!


Plus we touch base tonally with Argento's old theme of arts and literature as a mask for darkness, this time in the form of the world's greatest library.  I was irked that they shelved a book on the Three Mothers next to general antiquarian knowledge, but I was three years old when INFERNO was made, so they couldn't consult me on how it should really be organized in the collection.


WHAT DIDN'T WORK:
INFERNO is grand in scope, much larger than SUSPIRIA and its practically single-building setting.  We get multiple protagonists who appear and are dispatched and then replaced by other characters.  It's disorienting, probably on purpose, but not exactly enjoyable and it's pretty difficult to keep tabs on who's who until you've watched this repeatedly.  The characters and dialogue feel less special here, too...we don't get a wonky "names that start with 's'" scene or anything.  The closest INFERNO comes to that is this mind-boggling exchange:

SARA: Have you ever heard of the Three Sisters?
CARLO: You mean those black singers?

Don't worry, there's not a ton of such comedy in INFERNO.


I was glad to see Alida Valli return!  She was so memorable in SUSPIRIA!  Unfortunately, it seems that the Italian practice of voice dubbing slew her performance here.  Her character's not supposed to be a martinet, like in SUSPIRIA, but the squeaky and unremarkable voice grated onto her here really does hamper her effectiveness.  Also not as impressed by the acting in general as I was with SUSPIRIA.  Sorry, leads, but you are especially bad offenders.  Granted, the script is more focused on visuals and overall scenes than dialogue and character motivation, but still...


In a way, I think INFERNO has had a fate opposite to that of DRACULA.  Critical response to it upon release was pretty unkind for whatever reason—maybe it didn't live up to the SUSPIRIA 2 dreams that fans had—but, over time, it's undergone an energetic rehabilitation.  There are people who argue that this is Dario Argento's best film, which sounds like madness or contrarianism to me.  INFERNO's certainly got its charms, but it also lacks the strengths that Argento displayed in many other films, like having characters that you could care about.  Mostly, it reminds me of THE BEYOND—a film which is focused on imagery and film-making as an exercise instead of traditional storytelling elements.  It's grown on me over time, but it's really a credit to Argento that a film I consider a few steps below his best work still gets a...

RATING: 7

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